In this post from ARA’s Diversity Allies, Philip Milnes-Smith, explores the work of the Diversity Allies in the context of the recent UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report.
The headlines from the recent report from the UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and the circumstances of its release, have both generated a certain amount of controversy. This blog attempts to set overtly political controversies to one side. It is a personal reflection on the current work of the Diversity Allies, in the context of the report.
Perhaps receiving the widest support has been the recommendation (number 24) that the acronym BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) be disaggregated for data collection purposes and, more broadly, dropped from discourse. There is no doubt that the acronym had the potential to hide at least as much as it revealed and ran the risk of effectively dividing people, unhelpfully, into White people and everyone else. It is not, either, mere ‘whataboutery’ to note that there are minorities whose ethnicity would be perceived and reported as ‘White’, but who have also been marginalised and discriminated against (e.g., and not restricted to, Gypsy, Roma and Travellers, and Eastern Europeans).
Ethnically, the Allies are probably as un-diverse as the knowledge profession overall. Our allyship, therefore, must include listening, reflecting on and responding to the experiences, needs and aspirations of people from populations the profession has, perhaps, not engaged effectively before. The Approaching Marginalised Communities Group was already looking to hold some ‘community conversations.’ Importantly, we also want to listen to those of you with relevant experience, in your setting, of working with such groups as records creators, records subjects, co-curators and service users. We know from one listening exercise (February’s Resources Questionnaire) that there is a broad appetite for case studies and ‘how-to’ guides to help disseminate existing good practice.
Whatever one’s view of the weighting given to different aspects of identity, the report is clearly right that ethnic heritage is not the only possible factor of identity that contributes to inequalities and disparities. In this regard, we should note that some respondents to the survey raised class and socio-economic status as issues of background that may have been overlooked by ARA in the past. You may also have seen the call from our Decolonising Catalogues working group for examples of terminological cataloguing guidance beyond race and ethnicity (e.g. disability, gender, sexuality).
The report is supportive of “those from different ethnic and social class backgrounds” having the opportunity to “see, hear and read about their heritage, and the contribution their forefathers and mothers have made to this country through the ages.” The Awareness Campaigns Working Group is in the process of drafting a calendar including dates we feel are generally relevant to archives, records, and the heritage sector in both the UK and Ireland. Of course, this inclusive effort should not be limited to just the highlighted days of the year, but we are hoping that the calendar could, for example, help schedule the promotion of relevant collections on social media. We expect to finish our draft of the calendar before the end of April.
The Allies are aware that many in our profession do not work in “truly inclusive environments… where anyone feels comfortable to be themselves and confident that they have the same chance of succeeding as anyone else with the same qualifications and experience.” In the report, employment is the context in which the term unconscious bias (defined as [s]ocial stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness”) is introduced. It is important to note that although the report argues against unconscious bias training, this is on the basis of efficacy, rather than denying that people are subject to such biases. They are, I think, usefully characterised as “a form of ‘fast thinking’ – those quick decisions we make without realising and are no doubt connected to particular values or world views that are hard-wired into our minds. Such bias is commonplace because it is reflexive and automatic. It is also laced with preferences and prejudices based on our upbringing and family and social backgrounds.” One specific example of these biases that it cites is affinity bias (“when we treat people more favourably, simply because they are like us or others we like. Similarities can include any shared commonality, including everything, from likes, dislikes or appearance, to schooling or career history”).
What provenly more effective diversity training eventually looks like remains to be seen but, in the meantime, the Allies are continuing to road-test existing courses of relevance to our sector, currently the Cultural Diversity Competency course from the Society of American Archivists.
By Philip Milnes-Smith